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Vintage Couture Tailoring

Vintage Couture Tailoring

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Vintage Couture Tailoring

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Jun 30, 2013


Traditional tailoring is a fascinating craft, which has not changed for many centuries, however, the techniques are now known only by a few practising in the best couture ateliers and bespoke tailor's workrooms. Nothing feels quite so luxurious or sophisticated as bespoke clothes, but the tailoring skills they require are often seen to be shrouded in mystery and the clothes therefore only accessible to the rich and famous. This practical book reveals the trade secrets of couture tailoring and brings vintage couture tailoring within the reach of all. With step-by-step photographs and professional tips throughout, it shows how a ladies' jacket is made and thereby introduces a range of fundamental tailoring techniques. These can be used for garments for either gender, as well as other sewing projects: moulding fabric to shape with the iron; employing loose interfacings; hollow shoulder construction; pad stitching canvas; interlining and weighting hems;making tailored and bound buttonholes;.... and many more forgotten techniques.Written by a tailor of international repute, Vintage Couture Tailoring is dedicated to all who appreciate the highest standard of craftsmanship, and who like using their eyes and hands to produce beautiful garments.Vintage couture tailoring is practised by only a few establishments around the world today and this practical book reveals the trade secrets of couture tailoring. An invaluable guide for professionals wishing to further their skills, and for enthusiasts with an interest in traditional tailoring. Shows how to make a ladies' jacket from preparation through to assembly and reveals the exquisite finishing details that are the hallmark of couture tailoring. Superbly illustrated with 417 colour step-by-step photographs.Thomas von Nordheim is a tailor of international repute.
Jun 30, 2013

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Cotizaciones principales

  • Pockets in ladies’ jackets are hardly used for items such as keys, cigarettes and spectacles; besides distorting the line of the garment, for these items a lady carries her handbag!

  • Bespoke tailoring is a process in which a garment is assembled by hand for fittings and then taken apart again numerous times until all seams are permanently stitched, by hand and machine.

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Vintage Couture Tailoring - Thomas von Nordheim



We live in an age in which fashion and clothing have become casual, fast-lived consumables. For many people the number of items in their wardrobe and how often they change them is more important than their quality and longevity. Because of that, clothes no longer need to be made to last.

This has not always been so. Even fifty or sixty years ago clothes used to be purchased only every so often and even when bought off the peg, they were constructed to last and were handed down, remodelled, mended, and cherished. The craft of tailoring was well regarded and most towns had their tailors and dressmakers, frequented even by people of limited means. National UK statistics of the 1930s indicate that every other man in the population had a suit made every two years. It is likely that women called upon their tailors even more often, to have their ‘costumes’ made (as suits were called back then). In addition most women knew how to sew; if they had not learned sewing at school they would have been taught by their mothers and often showed considerable skill in manufacturing dresses and basic tailoring for themselves, as well as clothing their children.

With the disappearance of handicrafts (most of them in fact), whether due to technical advances in manufacturing, rising costs of labour and cheap competition from the East, or changes in attitude – most likely a combination of all of these – a good deal of culture and its associated base of skilled artisans have vanished from our lives. Apprenticeships have mostly disappeared, aside from the fact that most young people nowadays aim to pursue a career after going to university, rather than learning a trade; even some MA fashion design students lack very basic construction skills. Yet it requires modellers, pattern cutters, fitters, tailors, dressmakers, machinists and hand finishers to put designers’ visions into reality. The question is how long it will be before there are only a few people left who will be able to pass on their knowledge. Already there is a shortage of experienced technicians at colleges and the remaining bespoke tailors complain of having difficulty in hiring highly skilled staff.

In recent years the trend has returned towards handcrafted products, mostly textiles-based accessories, but also niche market clothing with a twist on something – for example reconstructed vintage or garments made from ecologically sourced fabrics with a particular provenance. A new generation of environmentally conscious middle-class consumers is looking for customized, well-made but quirky clothes with individuality. They are tired with what they can find in the high street or in expensive designer boutiques. This must be a welcome trend, but has little to do with craftsmanship or indeed couture.

In these modern times, a few couture houses are surviving like dinosaurs and cater for this already rare species, the typical couture client: mature, discerning, used to the best of everything, knowledgeable about quality and fit, able and prepared to pay. In their view the expense of having clothes made is well worth it: many upper-class people wear their bespoke clothes until they literally fall apart, having got more than their money’s worth out of them. The garments have lasted well in the first place because of their superior materials and construction. Moreover, their classic style remained fresh over many years. Ultimately this means fewer clothes, but of better quality. Even people with lesser means should learn from this attitude; couture clothes are often seen as a luxury, but are actually worth every penny. Truly extravagant are those people who consume cheap, high-fashion items and discard them after wearing a few times. Historically, couture has always done well in times of recession, showing that even in times like this, those who prefer flawless craftsmanship and no-nonsense styles will not accept second best. They would rather buy one or two fewer outfits a year, but still commission investment pieces.

Couture is not about sketching pretty clothes and entertaining glamorous clients. Making bespoke clothes is hard work and this should be considered if you are thinking of using your skills professionally. Fashions aside, you need to be able to customize designs and have an aesthetic feel for colours, fabrics and textures, as well as an understanding of what suits different figures. Next comes the cutting, a profession in itself, and there are also many different technical skills in garment manufacture. Fitting is another most important skill, as every client’s figure is different – couture clients used to consider their fitters more important than the designers, and would follow them to other houses. Lastly you have to have the necessary skills to run the business side: there will be frantic periods and those with no orders at all. This advice is not intended to discourage, but it is important to learn to walk before you run. Every piece has a soul: the cut and shape, colour and texture are as individual as the style and personality of the customer who is going to wear it!

Many people have taken up sewing as a hobby again, as proven by increased sales of sewing machines in recent years, and this is an encouraging development. As opposed to paying a lot for having their clothes made, those who actually work the couture way are investing a good deal of time and effort in their work. They will come to appreciate the amount of labour and skill that goes into the manufacture of bespoke garments. Needless to say they can choose what really suits and flatters their physique and can creatively customize their wardrobes by building up useful unique pieces. There is of course the added satisfaction of achievement, having made something yourself which you can wear with pride.

Although an advanced skill, traditional handcraft tailoring in its pure form is the base for all other sewing. A tailor can make a dress, but a dressmaker cannot make a tailored jacket. Most stitches in tailoring encompass those used in other needlecrafts, including millinery. This book will explain step by step how to build a jacket from scratch. It is a ladies’ jacket tailored the men’s way, but the techniques can be utilized in the manufacture of garments for either gender. The cut, governed by style and the female anatomy, as well as some minor finishing details (most of which are invisible from the outside) would differentiate the jackets. Learning how to make a tailored jacket includes fundamental skills and techniques that will be useful for all your other sewing projects. Whether you are a professional wishing to refresh or deepen your knowledge or a sewer wanting to explore tailoring, this book is dedicated to all those who appreciate quality and craftsmanship and wish to know more about the trade secrets that hide behind the mystique of old-school couture tailoring.

Author’s remake of a 1951 Balmain suit.

Chapter 1

A brief history of tailoring

The two-piece suit is nowadays the internationally accepted apparel, but few know the origins of these garments. The collar and lapel of modern tailoring (formerly worn up at times as a means of protection against the elements), as well as details such as the buttoned cuffs (also referred to as ‘surgeon’s cuffs’, indicating they can be unbuttoned to allow rolling up the sleeves to engage in ‘dirty’ work) and vents in the back of a jacket (so the wearer can sit comfortably on a horse), are not thought about much and are commonly seen as ‘classic design’ from which even cutting-edge designers cannot get away. They have no utilitarian function as they did 200 years ago, so really they are decorative anachronisms.

Tailoring is a very old craft and was already regulated by Guilds during the Middle Ages in Europe. The origins of tailoring are supposed to be rooted in the structures made by stitching together material and wadding (pad stitched as we still use it now), to be worn under armour so that the body was protected against the heavy metal casings.

Retaining the stiffness of armour, but no longer a functional feature, in the late Middle Ages and during the Spanish fashion of the Renaissance period heavily padded clothes were worn: rigid fabrics, cod pieces, extreme shoulder puffs and peascod belly doublets. This created extravagant fashion silhouettes, which did not resemble the human shape underneath but represented the status and wealth of the wearer in their geometric formality.

After the unrest of the Thirty Years’ War in the early seventeenth century, clothes became less structured. The loose-fitting buttoned coat with narrow, sloping shoulders (worn with casual nonchalance) was the most popular men’s garment. Over the century and during the next, they became increasingly formal again and elaborate rows of decorative buttoning and rich embroideries adorned the fabrics. Coat skirts became fuller and were executed in stiff silks and velvets. Worn with a waistcoat and breeches, this was the prototype for the modern men’s three-piece suit, although each garment was made from different materials and the collar did not exist as such by then.

In the late eighteenth century, fashion looked to England, where country gentlemen wore informal woollen frock coats with collar and lapel. This was the start of a swing towards more casual and comfortable clothing again, which was to impress with proportion and fit, rather than ostentatious surface decoration. Around 1810 English tailors cut the coat with a waist seam, which allowed the garment to be more fitted. This cut was used on men’s coats throughout the nineteenth century, into the early 1920s on suit jackets, and is still in use today on morning coats and tail coats, the two most formal pieces of men’s clothing to have survived. At this time wool fabric replaced the stiff, rich fabrics of earlier times. With the help of discreet padding, clever cutting and tailoring techniques (the malleable wool fabrics reacted to heat and steam), a new sartorial ideal was invented. Tailoring firms like Stultz in London’s Savile Row or Staub in Paris’s Rue de Richelieu founded the reputation for these still flourishing world-class tailoring centres.

Pattern cutting systems, complicated apparatus for measuring, and the inch tape itself, were invented. Prior to that, strips of paper with notches were used to keep a record of customers’ measurements, but there were no templates. Customers had to supply their own material purchased at a draper’s shop and then each garment was cut by guessing and altered by the tailor with more or less skill, a lengthy process involving many fittings.

As a rule, garments were made to order; however, a few tailors started selling made-up garments in the late eighteenth century. The appearance of the straight-cut long overcoat in the 1840s meant that this type of unfitted garment could be made in advance and more merchant tailors offered these off the rack. Technical innovations of the Industrial Revolution meant goods could be acquired more cheaply and there was more demand for formal clothing from an increasingly ambitious and wealthier middle class. It has to be remembered that at this point the sewing machine had not been invented and all clothing, bespoke or confection (ready-made clothing), was entirely hand sewn. When it did arrive in the 1850s, it was not frequently utilized. A hundred years on from then, many ready-to-wear tailored garments were still hand finished, including buttonholes and lining around the armholes.

Throughout the nineteenth century, tailored garments were stiffened with various starched linen canvases, stiff buckram, even cardboard; padding was made from horsehair matting, cotton wadding or kapok (all of which are still used in traditional upholstery, a related craft). Coats were tight-fitting, achieved through multiple seaming in the coat. Around 1850 the coat was cut short to what we now know as a jacket. This was in response to increased demand from men to wear more comfortable clothes for leisure and sports. The buttoned sleeve cuff allowed workmen, doctors and so on to turn up their sleeves when needed.

Men’s fashions.

In the mid-nineteenth century it was not yet fashionable to wear coat, waistcoat and trousers made from the same material – quite the opposite. The three-piece lounge suit made en suite, resembling the modern business suit, arrived in c. 1870 and became the most popular men’s apparel. It was, however, considered distinctly lower class and was only worn for country pursuits and travelling by higher members of society. The frock coat and the semi-formal morning coat, still worn with contrasting trousers, were worn by upper-middle-class businessmen, politicians, bankers and doctors. Considered old-fashioned by then, they disappeared entirely from general wear between the two world wars. As with all old-fashioned dress styles, they either vanish or live on as a kind of costume reserved for special formal occasions (white tie for banquets, morning coat for weddings, events at court, and so on); alternatively they become a dress style reserved for servants (very grand staff wore eighteenth-century style liveries well into the mid-twentieth century, including wigs). Even today, waiters still wear black tie in some establishments.

Throughout the nineteenth century, coat styles changed with fashions, but this was limited to the style, length and width of lapel, trimmings, pockets, quarter details, etc. The jacket shape was basically an unshaped straight-cut garment to cover the natural human body without exaggeration. Towards the end of that century, jackets were fitted more closely to the body. Just after the First World War and until the early 1920s, jackets had heavily padded fronts with stiff built-out chests (referred to as bombé in French), although this was due to the poor quality of materials available at the time. From the late 1920s, jackets were very fitted and had wide and straight padded shoulders – a look that would last throughout the 1930s. Attributed to a London tailor called Scholte, a new cut called the ‘drape cut’ (also known as ‘London cut’) was introduced. By widening and padding the shoulders and cutting the chest with extra cloth so it draped before the armhole, the figure seemed to have the fuller chest of an athletic person. This cut is still used by some establishments today.

Horsehair canvas had been made since before the First World War, but only became popular as body interfacing, rather than just for chest re-inforcement, in the 1930s. More tailors accepted that the superior springy quality of hair canvas led to an improvement in the construction of jackets, replacing the previous layering of limp linen. By this time suit jackets never had vents in the back, whether single or double; this only applied to riding jackets. Generally, single-breasted styles were considered less formal than double-breasted, but before the war, were acceptable when worked with peak lapels (when the revers goes into an upward point).

After the Second World War the American V-silhouette, with its extremely wide, padded shoulders and long, straight, oversized cut, became the fashion. In 1950 a neo-Edwardian style was propagated by London tailors, and taken on by the Italians, who became ever more prominent as fashion trendsetters in the 1950s. Jackets with wide but rounded shoulders, short lapels and only slightly fitted at the waist, were the look. From the mid 1960s jackets were cut closer to the body again and in the early 1970s very tight-fitted jackets with narrow but high padded shoulders and very wide lapels became the fashion. This was an exaggerated ‘retro’ take on the 1930s, and was followed by a more relaxed fit, but still cut quite closely to the figure. Oversize styles with ridiculously wide padded shoulders for both sexes were the fashion from the mid 1980s.

Traditionally only men did tailoring (‘man-tailored’); they also fashioned ladies’ corsets and riding habits. Though professional seamstresses were employed to do trimming and hand-finishing, they never designed, cut or fitted garments. In the eighteenth century this changed: dressmakers set up businesses and formed their own guilds. It was here that the differences in craftsmanship in traditional gents’ and ladies’ tailoring began.

Ladies’ tailoring

When it became fashionable for women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to wear crisply tailored suits in nautical, equestrian or military styles, men’s tailors again were sought after for their high standards of exquisite craftsmanship.

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